Avatar: The Last Airbender (ATLA) and The Legend of Korra (LOK) have incredibly dedicated fanbases. The creators and producers of the shows, taking note, continue to explore the world of Avatar in a plethora of story-rich books and graphic novels. The stories told in these materials are not ancillary, but directly continue the journeys of the animated series’ beloved characters. At the Javits Center at New York Comic Con 2019, some of the creators of the new books and comics gave insight into the creative process of the world of Avatar. FC Yee, the author of The Rise of Kyoshi, Michelle Wong, the illustrator for The Legend of Korra comics, and Jenny Blenk, Assistant Editor at Dark Horse for the ATLA and LOK comics comprised the panel.
When asked how he approached his novel, and its sequel coming out next year, that explore Avatar Kyoshi’s background, Yee worked closely with series co-creator Michael Dante Dimartino to fit his vision: “Mike clearly defined what Kyoshi’s endpoint is, so from that perspective it was a matter of trying to work backward to finish up her arc in that state.” Yee also seemed confident about his approach to how he would start this legendary Avatar’s journey. “What journey would make the most interesting arc? The most compelling would be her starting as the total opposite from who she is as an adult.”
Yee noted the limits, however, of writing a novel in a universe that is so well known as a visual medium, pushing him to focus much more on introspective journeys. “Movement is so integral to the Avatar universe, and it’s so hard to get that on-page…If I tried to describe inward everything that happens on The Day of Black Sun with Azula and the Dai Li, there’s so much that’s happening at once, and it’s the movement telling the story. I feel I would fail at that.”
When asked why the world of Avatar was so great to write in and be a fan of, Yee explained how its inherent design makes it easy to create stories in. “The world is so complete and rich, that as your characters come and go, you get a sense that the world will keep happening…The best stories are set in places where you’re really drawn to these characters but you get the sense that things will continue forward, and the society keeps going and going and happening.” On having the opportunity to write one of these stories, he said simply, “This is definitely a dream project.”
Jenny Blenk explained to the audience her role as an Assistant Editor, saying that she acts as schedulers and liaisons between the authors, creators, and Nickelodeon. Her role is to check the narrative and story structure, compare that with the art, check the lettering, and overall act as, as she describes it, “quality control.” Most of my activity as long as storytelling goes is maintaining integrity for the continuum of the narrative,” she said, “We’re lucky to have folks at Nickelodeon and Dark Horse who know where the timeline is.”
When she was asked why it was so great to work in the world of Avatar, she expressed how the characters’ experience in the world got her to appreciate it. “The animated series got us into these characters and the world around them was something that interested me because of them living in it.” On why the world continues to be beloved, she said the fandom being a “welcoming place” was a reason why. “Part of what keeps these people in is the pure content and the fandom as well,”
She also noted that the fans have provided guidance on new story avenues for them to explore, based on their vast speculation and unanswered questions lingering from the animated series. “A lot of what we try to pitch comes from you all!” We try to take these unexplored corners of the Avatar universe and flesh that out.”
Michelle Wong, the illustrator of the LOK comics, had a reaction similar to Yee’s when she got the project. “When I got the email to work on it it felt like a dream come true.” She spoke about the great experience of bringing Dimartino’s comic scripts to life. “He’s great! He gives a lot of nice feedback to make these stories more clear. He’s good at streamlining story points, and I’m learning a lot from him.” When asked about how she goes about creating the aesthetic for the comics, “When I’m trying to build new scenes or environments, I try to look at the design material that’s already there. I also like going to the original series and see what changes there are in between the more traditional elements in Avatar and the more advanced technology in Korra.”
Working on a comic is different from the animated series and Wong is keenly aware of how the mediums compare. “On the animated series, there’s usually a lot of staff working together—it’s harder to do that with a smaller team now. In animation, you have a lot more room to convey what you want to. In comics, you have to take a snapshot and make sure it gets the point across clearly.”
On working with editors like Blenk, she described how fun of an experience it is. “When I’m doing layouts I’ll put little notes asking things like if it’s ok if I give Korra or Asami a new outfit? They’ll then give back their notes. It’s mostly through email but it’s pretty easy.” She also noted that they’ve made it easy for her to put her own spin on the animation style. “When I was starting out, I was really nervous to add my own flavor to the comic because it’s so perfect! But it’s really easy now because everyone at Nickelodeon and the editors are really great!”
When asked what it is about ATLA and LOK that made it great to work in, Wong also said the character journeys solidified her love for the world. “Avatar Korra just has a great cast of characters. For me as a fan, it’s first characters and then plot…With such a great and wide cast you get to keep seeing these stories.”
When explaining how she and the creative team were pushing Korra’s world forward, she noted that it’s a direct continuation of the animated series’ story in comics like Ruins of the Empire. “We’re still really building on what’s happened in the animated series. We’re trying to tie up the ending of things that didn’t really finish in the story.” She mentioned that once this story concludes, there could be more distinct stories to tell for Korra and her Team Avatar. “I think we’ll have more to explore in the future, but I think for now we’re really focused on [continuing] the animated canon.”
She has also been a longtime fan of ATLA and LOK. In particular, she talked about watching the LOK series finale and talking about it with her classmates.“When the final episode of Korra came out, everyone in my class freaked out about Korrasami!” She also mentioned that when she illustrates the comics she “[tries] to put in Korrasami moments whenever [she] can” in the visuals, showing her love of the beloved relationship. On being a fan: “Being on the project has made me appreciate it a lot more, but I did watch before.
The moderator also asked each of them their favorite ATLA or LOK episodes. Yee answered with “The Ember Island Players. It throws light onto how good the main story of Avatar is while telling us to not take it so seriously!” Blenk said her favorite ATLA was the one with “Sokka’s Cactus juice” and Wong said hers was Korra’s final episode, specifically the scene of Korra facing the season villain, Kuvira.
The panel was a great experience of learning how the two animated series inspired many new riveting stories to be told. You can find the Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra comics and The Rise of Kyoshi at your local bookstores.